Prestigious Wensleydale sheep prize returns to Dales village after 80 years

Nick Oliver with his daughters Katie and Sophie and the prize-winning ewe.

A sheep bred in Carperby has been crowned supreme champion at the annual Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders Association (WLSBS) show and sale in Skipton.

The ewe lamb belonging to the Oliver family is the first from the village — which has a long association with the breed — to take the title since 1939.

There are several breeders still in Wensleydale, including the Oliver family.

They supply their fleeces to the Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop in Leyburn and Shear Wool Shop at Arrathorne

The Oliver family started keeping Wensleydale sheep around 20 years ago, with Nick Oliver taking over from his dad Philip. They have five ewes and a tup called Samson.

Nick said: “We’ve had some limited success over the years, but 2019 and this year have been exceptional

“In 2019 we won reserve champion at the WLSBS show and sale at Skipton with a ewe lamb and won best ram lamb which went on to set a new record for a ram lamb, by selling for 850gn.

“This year we have managed to achieve supreme champion at Skipton, with a ewe lamb which eventually sold for 900gn. We also won the virtual Wensleydale Show sheep section with a picture of a Wensleydale ewe lamb.

“It was great to see a Wensleydale win the virtual show, even if it was a photo class.

“I have to admit that the sense of history surrounding Wensleydale sheep and the village of Carperby, makes it even more special to have won the WLSBA Show and Championship.

“Given that the last time it was bought back to the village was in 1939 by Mr J A Willis who farmed the land which we now own.”

Nick said he was convinced the breed was gaining in popularity due to a steady return to using natural fibres instead of plastic and acrylics.

“The demand at the WLSBA show and sale for stock is very good, with a high proportion of new buyers and foundation flocks being developed purely for the wool production.

“Given the wool price for other breeds is very poor the Wensleydale is the perfect crossing sire to improve the wool quality of any breed and this is part of the reason for their popularity back in the 20s and 30s.

“Are we ‘going back to the future’ for the breed? I think so — they are a magnificent sheep, with a real aristocratic air to their persona.”

The breed is unusual as it can trace all its pedigree stock back to a single ram called Blue Cap who was born in 1839 near East Appleton, Bedale, and owned by a Mr Outhwaite.

The first classes for a pure bred Wensleydale sheep were held at the Great Yorkshire Show in 1876.

The Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Breeders Association was formed in 1890 and is one of the oldest societies in the country.

The breed’s heyday was in the early 20th century and Carperby breeders were prominent at the time, with local family names of  Willis and Percival regularly named in the society records.

The sheep, which are classified as rare, are a large breed with ewes weighing up to 100kg and rams over 120kg.

A fleece can weigh up to 5kg in a shearling and can demand as much as £100 per fleece for a quality fleece.